Fiction: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

house of mirthSo after I finished Nickel and Dimed, it was October. And looking back – because that’s the type of idiot I am – I realized that October was typically a month where I would dig out a classic work of literature, for one reason or another (see: Brave New World, which killed two birds with one Banned Book stone; and The Mayor of Casterbridge). I decided – rather capriciously, to be honest – to create another Theme Month. And so, from here and in perpetuity, let October be henceforth known as: The Fall Classic.

(Which is also, apparently, the other name of the World Series. But whatever, right?)

I had purchased The House of Mirth years ago, after watching the Gillian Anderson-starring film adaptation. It has been so long since I’ve watched that movie that I could no longer remember the plot, and since none of the rest of the classics I own inspired me, I decided to read this one. Also, if you don’t like Gillian Anderson, I don’t think we can be friends.

The House of Mirth, first and foremost, is a tragedy. The introduction lets us know up front that this tale will not have a happy ending. Our story takes place after the turn of the last century in New York City’s society, and our tragic heroine is Lily Bart, the orphan of parents who lost their money through reckless spending. When her parents pass away, Lily is sent to live with her maiden aunt in the hope of finding a suitable husband.

For in that day and age, the only acceptable future for a woman of Lily’s pedigree lay in achieving a good, solid marriage. But while Lily wants – nay, requires – the financial stability a marriage would bring, she desires her own independence more.

When we first meet Lily, she is dashing across Grand Central Station to meet up with her longtime friend, Lawrence Seldon. She does have another train to catch that evening, a train that will take her to the country home of her other dear friend, Judy Trenor. But during the layover, she’d love to have Seldon get her up to speed on his Americana collection, in the hopes of using that knowledge to get Mr. Percy Gryce, an incredibly wealthy nerd and another guest of Mrs. Trenor, to propose marriage to her.

This is one example of Lily’s smarts: she knows exactly which avenue to take in order to get men to notice her and her flirting skills are unparalleled. She can easily maneuver among the elite caste of New York society to which she aspires to belong. Sadly, her downfall is her inability to compromise her convictions. Because just when her future with Mr. Gryce is all but secured – all she needs to do is accompany him to church and he will propose to her – she oversleeps. So she decides to wait for him to return to the Trenor house via the country lane, and when she runs into Selden, she decides to take a walk with him rather than wait for Mr. Gryce.

Why doesn’t she marry Seldon, you ask? Well for one, he’s never proposed to her. Secondly, while she does care for him, and he for her, she is well aware of her fiscal shortcomings and doesn’t want to burden him with them. Furthermore, Seldon has stated that when he does marry, he wants it to be for love.

So after this walk with Seldon, she completely loses her chance with Mr. Gryce. Lily borrows the gig and goes to pick up Judy’s husband, Gus, at the train station. During the ride home, Lily alludes to her money troubles, and Gus offers to invest her funds in Wall Street for her. She readily agrees, and in almost no time at all, Gus hands her a check for $9,000.

But then Gus starts cornering Lily at gatherings, and trying to get her alone. Rumors start flying, and Lily tries her best to avoid him. But when she receives a note from Judy, telling her to visit after 10 one night, and when Lily arrives she learns that Gus sent the note and Judy’s not even in town, Gus makes it explicitly clear that he gave her $9,000, that he never invested her money, and now he expects repayment in the form of an affair. Lily stalks out, and her exit is seen by Selden, who puts two and two together and doesn’t go see Lily the next day as he had originally requested.

Lily’s other main foe in her story is Mrs. Bertha Dorset. Mrs. Dorset had had an affair with Lawrence until he broke it off or she got bored. One day, a servant found letters from Mrs. Dorset, sent to Selden, and she sells the letters to Lily. Lily holds on to those letters, partly hoping to use them in order to get a leg up on Mrs. Dorset, but also holds on to them so they don’t get out, as Selden is also involved.

When Selden doesn’t show up, Lily is greeted by another acquaintance, Mr. Rosedale. Mr. Rosedale aspires to great social heights, and having Lily Bart on his arm would be an amazing get for him. He would get his social acceptance – Mrs. Wharton clearly identifies Mr. Rosedale as Jewish nearly any chance she gets, and therefore makes it clear that only WASPs typically succeeded in New York society – and Lily would get her financial stability. Lily hesitates, because he’s Jewish and she doesn’t love him, and in the middle of her hesitancy the Dorsets invite Lily to accompany them on a European tour.

And why does Mrs, Dorset invite Lily, of all people, to Europe? Why to distract her husband while she runs around with another young dude. Lily is completely oblivious to Mrs. Dorset’s goings-on, and is a true friend to Mr. Dorset. Until Mr. Dorset tells Lily that he knows everything, that Bertha’s shtupping whatever the dude’s name was, and he plans on getting a divorce. Lily manages to run into Selden in Monte Carlo and she tells him what she knows, and his heart melts once more and urges her to get out of town immediately. But Lily decides to wait until the morning, but that is one night too late; that very night, Bertha announces to everyone, including Lily, that Lily is not returning to the yacht. And just like that, any social cache Lily had is gone.

Lily returns to New York as her aunt passes away, and the hopes of receiving her legacy are dashed when the will is read and all of her aunt’s inheritance save ten thousand dollars goes to her cousin. Lily is removed from her home, and goes to be a secretary for a new-money up-and-comer. But when the woman’s morals clash with Lily’s own, she leaves her employ and goes to work as a milliner’s apprentice.

That’s Lily’s tragedy – her morals are in complete contradiction to Society’s. At any time, she could have blackmailed Bertha into supporting her through the use of her letters. She could have explained the Gus Trenor situation to Selden – that she thought he had invested her money, not given her a loan with sex as his repayment plan. She could have married Rosedale when he asked her instead of running away to Europe. But in not compromising her morals to Society’s needs, she doomed her own ability to live.

Huh. Apparently, the title comes from a line from the Bible: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecc. 7-4). (I said “huh” back there because I’m not a Bible reader.) But the significance of the title now makes a whole lotta sense. Poor Lily Bart is truly a fool, as she struggles to maintain a foothold in Society – the true House of Mirth. And her foolishness and inability to truly become one of the horrible, cold women within that House is her downfall.

Grade for The House of Mirth: 4 stars

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